This tale of poverty in the Deep South, made with an admirable amateur ethos, feels a little self-indulgent yet its central performance is hard to resist.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (12A)
Directed by: BENH ZEITLIN
Starring: QUVENZHANÉ WALLIS, DWIGHT HENRY, LEVY EASTERLY, LOWELL LANDES
* * *
FÊted at Sundance and Cannes, endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and recipient of some of the most reverential reviews of the year so far, Beasts of the Southern Wild arrives on a wave of praise that can’t help but seem a little overzealous given the rather precious story that’s on offer. Set in a semi-mythical Louisiana swampland cut off from the rest of the country by a levee protecting the rest of the region, that story revolves around a six-year-old girl called Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a vibrant community of stragglers and strays with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) – a hard-drinking, tough-love practising widower who knows he’s dying and is trying to prepare his daughter for the day when he’s no longer around.
With life in the aptly named Bathtub under persistent threat from flooding – not to mention meddling do-gooders who want to relocate its residents, thereby wiping out their nomadic way of life – these seismic stresses manifest themselves in Hushpuppy’s head in the form of mythical boar-like creatures, a preoccupation with the end of the world and an innate belief that being good will eventually make everything right with the world.
She’s a force of nature, and writer/director Behn Zeitlin attempts to harness the character’s energy in order to make the film as overtly joyous as possible. As a result, Beasts of the Southern Wild is heady, sometimes charming and sometimes infuriating apocalyptic fable that plays like a magical realist mix of Terrence Malick’s much-aped nature-loving lyricism and Spike Jonze’s moody, magnificent take on Where the Wild Things Are – although perhaps the closet comparison in terms of style, setting, Malick worship and word-of-mouth hype is David Gordon Green’s scrappily poetic debut film George Washington.
There’s much to love about this, of course. The Bathtub is a soggy wilderness, punctuated with ramshackle houses and improvised modes of transport (Wink’s boat, for instance, is made out of a broken down truck and some barrels), all of which gives the film an authentic lived-in quality, enhanced by Zeitlin’s desire to shoot everything on location, using props fashioned from discarded debris, and filling his cast with amateur actors from the surrounding area. This shoestring, do-it-yourself approach is actually part of a specific artistic manifesto formulated by Court 13, a grassroots filmmaking collective that Zeitlin began in 2003 that prides itself on crafting handmade, community-centric films made in the face of great adversity in the stated belief that the sheer effort and force of will required to pull off an ambitious, deliberately difficult project will yield cinematic treasure that would be impossible to come by otherwise.
Indeed, Zeitlin laid the groundwork for Beasts of the Southern Wild with his previous short film Glory at Sea, an epic, apocalyptic tale of survival similarly focused on, and narrated by a young girl (the film had its British premiere as part of Court 13’s first ever UK retrospective at the 2010 Glasgow Short Film Festival).
As evidenced by both films, there is something very seductive and appealing (and very Werner Herzog) about this approach and it certainly makes Beasts of the Southern Wild stand out in a sea of American indie dirge, embracing as it does life-enhancing chaos over mannered, irony-drenched cynicism. But there’s also something a little self-indulgent and self-mythologising about it too: it feels like the filmmaking equivalent of Method acting in the way it assumes that deliberately making things difficult yields a truth like no other, which isn’t necessarily the case.
Zeitlin, for instance, works hard to present Beasts of the Southern Wild from the perspective of its resilient, impossible-to-resist protagonist. Shot from low angles, using a shallow depth-of-field, the Bathtub is represented on film as a place of wonder and magic rather than hardship and deprivation because that’s how a kid would see it; they don’t see the bigger picture in the way that adults do. And yet as much as this helps put us in the moment with Hushpuppy, the folksy narration young Quvenzhané Wallis has to deliver doesn’t feel like something a child would say. It’s full of greetings card wisdom and a faux-naïf simplicity that borders on the banal. Compare Hushpuppy to Elliot from ET and this failure to fully connect us with the main character’s primal sense of wonder makes its hard-won earthiness suddenly feel a little more contrived.
What helps get it through, though, is Wallis’s uninhibited presence. She really is a joy to watch and though Zeitlin’s camera clearly loves her, she’s giving a real performance too. Her interactions with the similarly non-trained Henry are those of a young girl confused about the world but trying to make sense of a desperate situation with a compassion that belies her tender age, while at the same time reflecting it.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: East
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Wind direction: North east